PRESTONSBURG — The city of Prestonsburg appears to be back at square one concerning its proposed community center, as the city council voted Monday night against borrowing the money needed to purchase the old Prestonsburg Elementary property.
The council narrowly voted during a special meeting last month to buy the property. That vote resulted in a 4-4 deadlock among council members, and Mayor Jerry Fannin broke the tie in favor of the purchase.
On Monday, it was pointed out that the council had only approved buying the property, but had not voted on whether to borrow the money for that purchase. This time, however, one of the “yes” votes from the prior meeting, Councilman Tim Cooley, was absent, and a vote to borrow the money from First Commonwealth Bank failed by a 3-4 margin. Harry Adams, B.D. Nunnery, Roy Roberts and Les Stapleton voted against the measure, with Stapleton pausing several seconds in apparent thought over the matter, before casting his “no” vote.
The discussion and resulting vote appeared to bring some frustrations to the surface, during the 90-minute meeting.
At one point, Councilman Freddie Goble stated, “It seems like every time I try to build something before I die, and I might not be able to do it, somebody comes up with a reason to be against it.”
Nunnery took exception to that statement.
“You characterize voting against spending more than what we think the property is worth as a vote against the center, and that’s not true,” Nunnery said. He later added, “We all want it. I was one of the first ones to bring it up years ago. But I’m not willing to bankrupt the city to do it.”
Nunnery also said that people were not aware of alternatives to the school property that could result in spending less money on the project, because meeting when the decision to buy the property was made was held on a Friday afternoon, while the media was covering a fiscal court meeting over a looming shortfall and the general public was not aware of the meeting taking place. The two alternatives he mentioned were building the center using land donated by Big Sandy Community and Technical College or building it on the city park at Trimble Branch, possibly buying a smaller piece of the school property if necessary.
Fannin appeared deadset against any discussion of building the center at the college, because, he said, it would provide little benefit to downtown. He said a good case in point is the bingo parlor located on Stephens Branch. He said the vast majority of traffic going to the bingo parlor arrives using the University Drive exit off of U.S. 23 and leaves by the same route, never stopping anywhere in town, other than the bingo hall. He said he believes building the center at the college would create the same type of scenario.
“If you want to build a center to help the community grow, put it somewhere where the community can grow,” Fannin said.
But Nunnery scoffed at the mayor’s suggestion.
“I don’t think we’re building a center to sell hamburgers and Cokes,” Nunnery said.
On Monday, Stapleton offered a fourth alternative — buying the entire school property, building the center at the park and using a portion of the school property if necessary, extending Mary Jane Street to North Lake Drive, and developing the remainder of the school site as commercial property that the city could later sell to recoup some of its investment.
The council took no action on Stapleton’s suggestion.
From here, it is unclear what will happen next. Some on the council suggested the matter of borrowing money could resurface at a council meeting in two weeks, if all the “yes” votes are in attendance, but it was not clear whether or not the proposal considered Monday would still be available, or if the city would have to begin the process of accepting bids for the loan all over again.
The proposal struck down Monday night involved restructuring the city’s current debt by refinancing at a lower rate of 3.25 percent, extending the period for 10 years, and adding an additional $1 million in debt to pay for the school property.
Monday’s meeting capped off a whirlwind day of discussion about the center. That morning, the council held a two-hour work session with Codell Construction about the possibility of taking advantage of the New Markets Tax Credit program, which could finance up to a third of the total cost of the project.
Codell representative Jeff Speaks told the council that the program is termed a “forgivable loan,” but it essentially functions as a grant program. However, he noted the city would still be on the hook for finding money to pay for the remainder, and it was his opinion that the best they could hope for in combined state and federal grant money was $2 million. With rough estimates of the project totalling between $10 million and $15 million, that could leave the city looking for between $5 million and $8 million in additional funding.
State Sen. Johnny Ray Turner attended the first half of that work session, before having to leave to get back to the legislature, which is currently meeting in Frankfort. Turner voiced his support for the project, saying similar centers in Knott and Letcher counties have been “very well received” in those communities.
“I’ll do anything I can to help with the project,” Turner said.